As I write this, I am newly recovered from major shoulder surgery. I’m very happy to say that my condition has settled into a manageable pain that merely makes me crabby; for the first 24 or so hours after the nerve block they put in my arm wore off, the experience was genuinely harrowing. There were a few hours where my constant instinct was to reach for my phone, though I had no idea what specifically I needed to find—I felt that there had to be some information, out there, if you understand me, something to explain my condition.
The pain was so much more than what felt reasonable, some part of me believed that God must have left an equation up on a wall in Gabbatha, where if you plugged in what the doctors and nurses said to me beforehand and then keyed in the coefficient of my actually existing pain units (A-EPUs) and divided by the seemingly salient fact that it’s the year two-thousand-and-twenty-goddamn-two, the world would realize that my pain in that moment exceeded the rational, and there would be some embarrassed adjustment of the dials that left me merely sore and constipated and consumed with growing disdain toward a body that is now old in several ways that are incontrovertible and non-negotiable. Which, after several more days, is more or less where I am.
One other consequence of that surgery is that I’m forced to sleep in a sling. I don’t recommend it. I’m also forced to sleep laying on my back, and I don’t recommend that, either. The result has been that I have been up all night, stealing spare hours of sleep when and where I could. Otherwise, I think, usually about deep philosophical questions of unanswerable nature. You do that late at night, too. I’m convinced this tendency is part of our genetic endowment, as humans, as primates. In any event, one thought that has recently arrested me is this: Why does Las Vegas exist?
There is a certain path dependency to history; things seem mundane to us, because we live in a timeline in which they have existed our entire lives, and so their fundamental strangeness never assaults us. This reality has been mined to great effect by stand-up comics, when, for instance, they ask what the first person to milk a cow was thinking or why we park in a driveway but drive on a parkway. If we wish to take a darker tack, we might wonder how it is that there is bipartisan consensus on defending the murderous theocrats who run Saudi Arabia, when they would seem to be obvious targets for left and right alike. But I haven’t pondered that question recently. I have been devoting my thoughts to Las Vegas.
In the divisive Star Wars film The Last Jedi, our heroes visit the casino planet Canto Bight. (This happens to be the most hated section of a film with some very dedicated haters.) The immediate reference is perhaps to Monte Carlo, as Canto Bight is depicted as an upscale, white-tie affair, which Las Vegas … isn’t, not really. It’s aspirationally classy, and there are many hideously expensive hotel rooms and restaurants, but Las Vegas is existentially chintzy and boorish, even among its greatest excess. Still, you can’t introduce a fictional gambling haven in these United States without nodding, even unwittingly, to our beating American heart of profligacy and bad decisions in the Mojave. So we see Las Vegas in The Last Jedi—a place to gamble away your savings in a fictional universe operating under an economy inscrutable to even the most dedicated obsessives. I mention this movie version because when I step outside of myself, as one is wont to do when synthetic opioids are busily commuting through one’s system, I think of Las Vegas as science fiction. It doesn’t seem real.
The contours of the idea are no more mysterious than that of Disneyland, which is to say, a certain kind of pleasure palace for a certain kind of person. Las Vegas is a place sold as a 24-hour bacchanal, a playground for adults, a central location for the country’s seedier types to congregate and exchange money for drugs and drugs for sex and sex for money. I get the basic logic when I abstract out sufficiently. And I understand that the seeming paradox of a den of sin arising from the early-to-mid 20th century’s social repression and reflexive Christian conservatism was no paradox at all: Sin had to go somewhere, so you hide it out in the middle of a desert. And I don’t think it’s too cute to say that the endless American drive toward the frontier, to the West, makes Nevada a compelling place to put your mythical pot of gold. (Reno, after all, is to the west of Los Angeles.)
Still, I think I can be forgiven for finding something unearthly and bizarre about an oasis of Elvis impersonators and past-their-prime pop singers, a cornucopia of strippers and escorts and middle-aged guys who own car dealerships looking to gamble and drink away their made-up worries, all rising out of a xenic landscape of sand, venomous lizards, and ironwood trees. Port cities like Bangkok and Hamburg make a little more sense to me as sites of licentiousness, as you can imagine the traditions begun by horny sailors finally returning to land; New York’s status as the biggest city in the hegemon makes it a natural destination for pursuing one’s vices; Amsterdam’s tolerance for personal excess is perfectly in keeping with the general culture of social freedoms in the Netherlands. Vegas, however, will always seem to me a little made up, like a contrivance in a novel I have to force myself to go along with.
I wish I had some deeper point to make about this fundamental question of mine, but I don’t; the fact that we may spend the nights pondering deep questions doesn’t mean we are entitled to receive answers. Perhaps I’m merely captivated by a place utterly dedicated to fun and desperation, losing and winning, the endless imagined rewards of chance and the relentless foreclosing of possibility, which also happens to be a site of personal demons, addiction, bankruptcy, and despair. People fly out to Las Vegas to get rich and get drunk and get laid and, especially, to make memories that the cliché insists they can’t share. But as Nicholas Cage’s performance in Leaving Las Vegas dramatized, people also go out there to die.
I have a little history with the city, not a particularly happy history. I have only been once, for an academic conference. Academic conferences are their own little version of unreality, and attending them is another thing I don’t recommend. And the welding together of the lukewarm pomposity and feelings of desperation that attend liberal-arts conferences in the 21st century with the sweaty unease of a culture built on escorts, blackjack tables, and unlucky mobsters in unmarked graves inspired in me a profound kind of dread. That particular conference was annually the biggest gathering of writing teachers in the country, and back then, some of the bigger textbook companies would throw shameless parties designed to get their books into more syllabuses. That year, one of them rented out the Stratosphere, a hotel and casino designed like one of those ultra-tall towers in Seattle or Toronto. The bar was open, and they served luxury food buffet-style. I drank myself silly and ate lobster mac and cheese with my best friends from grad school. We gazed out from the tallest observation tower in the United States, but my eyes were pulled constantly away from the garish lights of the strip and toward the desert hills in the distance. Perhaps we should have had the character to shun such obvious corruption, but as grad students, we were making about $18,000 a year, so we took what we could get.
Turned out that the plane ticket home I had purchased was a month after I had intended. The change fee was more than the price of the ticket, and I couldn’t afford a different flight. So I took a bus journey from Las Vegas to Indiana, setting out on Saturday afternoon and arriving on Monday morning. If you think there is an almost overpowering feeling of hopelessness that wafts around in Las Vegas’s dry hot air, I invite you to consider the atmosphere of a bus leaving Las Vegas as fast as its occupants’ meager funds can take them. I had no judgments of my fellow riders and no sense at all of being unsafe. It’s just that the collective mental environment felt like looking into an empty wallet after someone has just brought you a bill.
Still—there is something about Vegas. It’s like if shamelessness was a religious imperative, a mitzvah; everything is bigger and gaudier than it should be, and this condition rings the place with a certain ersatz sadness I have never experienced before, a discount version of human malaise that comes packaged with a counterfeit, but moving, type of sunny optimism. Las Vegas lives in the heart of a man who has lost everything, begs his way to a $5 chip, and puts it on red, believing with all his soul that his faith will be rewarded, that he will be redeemed.
I am a man with an unusual problem: I am a writer, a writer of shortform, argumentative nonfiction, and yet lately, writing the type of A-to-B-to-C essays that satisfy that format is getting harder and harder. Not harder as in more of a challenge; quite the contrary, if I felt any challenge was left in that genre for me, I would find the work more interesting. No, the problem is that after 15 years of ponderously explaining what I mean and what I don’t, my commitment to meaning is all but dead. I have never been deluded into thinking that my writing can make a difference in any real way, beyond perhaps briefly edifying and entertaining my readers. Fundamentally, I’m motivated by form, by image, by the desire to stretch, to develop my craft, to challenge myself, and to show off. I write to write and always have. That’s why I write so much, to make it new; that’s what I’m writing this essay, and why you will find no thesis in it. I’m tired of writing things that arrive at conclusions the reader can copy and paste. The great professional question ahead of me is: Will I in time wander so fully away from basic sense-making that no one wants to pay for my work anymore?
So I write now, in a sense, in a Las Vegas of the mind, a mental space like a roulette table where I am increasingly unwilling to hedge my bets and more and more likely to put it all on black and, in doing so, losing all but the most patient and sympathetic reader. That’s where I stand before you today. No joker, no jack, no king, only me, the digital scroll of my writing rolls on and on, it only ends when I say it does, and until it ends, I have no self, every war is the last war, I have no qualities, you can’t pin that on me, charges don’t stick, and even if you were the one to take me out to the desert to bury me behind some unpaid poker debt, on the drive tied up in the backseat of your rickety convertible, I’d gaze up and softly tell you about each and every gorgeous crevice on our shared and swollen moon. In the desert, your engine drowns out the sounds of the snakes rattling and the clicking of the katydids. The ropes don’t burn my wrists too bad, and anyway, doesn’t it look so lovely tonight, just for us, and the highway wends and wends away and away, like a vein gently pulsing us back toward that great taut muscle of the American heart.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Endocet talking.